Small Wars Journal

Calibrating Civil Affairs Forces for Human Geography

Sat, 05/18/2019 - 3:39pm

Calibrating Civil Affairs Forces for Human Geography

Mike Karlson

A brutally cold winter wind cut through the small shack that Chris and Lance were huddled in the corner of. They were both Civil Affairs Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO’s) from the 95th CA BDE (A) out of Fort Bragg, NC. The pine forests and rolling hills of North Carolina were a world away from that meager shack. They studied their well-worn map of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), searching for the Songwon District of Chagang Province. They believed they were in the nearby Jonchon District but could not be sure. Their Garmin and Defense Advanced GPS Receiver (DAGR) had not worked since infiltrating with a team of other Special Operations Forces (SOF) and Interagency personnel a few days prior. “We have to start somewhere Chris”, Lance said, referring to their assigned mission in the Songwon District. They were tasked with identifying and working with civilians that could assist with temporary governance of Songwon. They also had operational responsibility for identifying and assessing civil infrastructure in the area. “We don’t even know if that’s still our mission”, Chris replied, “So much has changed since we got here.” None of their communications equipment was working either, cutting them off from their headquarters element in Seoul. The team was on its own for an indeterminate amount of time, as was likely the case with hundreds of  teams across the operating area.

The above scenario is a fictional one however, it is based on assessed future operating conditions described within the US Army’s Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) concept. It is entirely possible, indeed likely, that future warfare will see US military units of action that are smaller, multi-composition, and less reliant on stable lines of communication. “Since the enemy will disrupt friendly communications and plans, mission command must expand to enable initiative and dynamic cooperation across Service and other partner lines—at some risk—to allow the Joint Force to preserve the ability to continuously and rapidly integrate multi-domain capabilities despite disrupted communications”.[i] The entire Department of Defense (DoD) is assessing its current suite of capabilities against identified future challenges, and the Civil Affairs (CA) Regiment is no exception. The Civil Affairs Proponent, headquartered at Fort Bragg, NC, is “…pursuing a Force Modernization Assessment (FMA) under the newly established Army Futures Command that will identify required capabilities for the future operating environment, capability gaps, and the right solutions to eliminate the identified gaps”.[ii] The FMA and related efforts will most certainly unearth steep challenges facing the Regiment, requiring changes to doctrine, training, and organizational practice. These challenges are also inextricably linked with opportunities. One such opportunity can be found in the way CA forces of the future could provide better situational understanding to supported commanders and partners. The recently published ‘Civil Affairs: 2025 And Beyond White Paper’ suggests that “…future CA elements must provide Army and Joint Commanders with the capability to understand, anticipate, shape, and exploit the changing conditions in the human geography…”.[iii] What is human geography (HG) and what could CA application(s) of it look like? This is an important question that deserves a rigorous and methodical approach. The CA Proponent wrote that the Regiment provides “…the Army’s only soldiers specially trained to shape human geography…”.[iv] It goes on to define HG as: “The study of the interrelationships between people, place, and environment, and how these vary spatially and temporally across and between locations”.[v] So does CA shape ‘…the study of interrelationships between people, place, and environment, and how these vary spatially and temporally across and between locations’? Of course not. HG as used in the former reference is a noun however, the definition cited is a verb. This is a minor oversight that illustrates a larger issue: little to no thought went into the use of HG in that article. Statements like this undermine the future potential of HG for the Regiment by inundating the force with another concept sans an agreed upon definition and application. How then should considerations of the potential future relationship between HG and CA be approached? Approaching this question can best be done through addressing three areas. 1) Human geography (HG) as an academic discipline 2) HG scoped for United States Government (USG) application(s) 3) Potential CA application(s) of HG based on existing doctrine and organizational practice.

Human Geography: An Academic Discipline

A fundamental aspect to understanding human geography, insofar as it relates to the entirety of the academic field of geography, is gaining a grasp on the sheer breadth of it. The subdisciplines of geography can be bifurcated between the physical and the social sciences. “When geography concentrates on the distribution of physical features, such as climate, soil, and vegetation, it is a physical science. When it studies cultural features, such as language, industries, and cities, geography is a social science”.[vi] The study of geography intersects with virtually every other scientific field. One of the ways this occurs is through two different approaches to the field: regional and systemic. The former “…allows us to view the world in an all-encompassing way”, integrating a multitude of information sources to “…create an overall image of our divided world”.[vii] The latter approach, systemic, is the interlude between various thematic fields and their spatial aspects.[viii] For example, the study of history within a spatial context is historical geography. Historical geographers would study the interactions between societies and their physical environment, and how those have changed in relation to each other over time. Figure 1 illustrates this relationship between systemic and regional approaches to geography, and how geography closely intersects with multiple scientific disciplines.


Figure 1. Regional and Systemic Geography[ix]

Human geography, as an academic field, essentially ‘lives’ at the innumerable points of intersection between physical and social sciences, and regional and systemic geographies. Human geography includes a near-infinite variety of phenomena, including “…agricultural production and food security, population change, the ecology of human diseases, resource management, environmental pollution, regional planning, and the symbolism of places and landscapes”.[x] The expansive scale of the field of human geography makes it ideal as an academic discipline, providing limitless facets of interest for current and future study. However, its scale presents a daunting challenge regarding its application(s) by any USG entity. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is a useful example to illustrate ‘scoping HG for operational context’.

Human Geography and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Two facts are important to understand before delving into the NGA and its application(s) of HG. 1) The NGA is the lead for HG within the intelligence community (IC), appointed as such by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) in 2012.[xi] 2) The NGA Director is the Functional Manager (FM) for Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) throughout the IC and the DoD as per National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG) Directive 1100 (August 2014).[xii] These two facts are important because they shed light on the appropriate and inevitable starting point for HG application(s) within the CA Regiment: The NGA. The NGA is continuously scoping the field of HG for its mission. The NGA’s Populated Place Framework (PPF) is one such example of ‘scoping for mission context’. Figure 2 illustrates this framework.


Figure 2. Populated Place Framework[xiii]

The themes within the PPF, while certainly not all-encompassing insofar as their ability to describe every facet of the operational environment (OE), are a conceptual maturation far beyond a basic definition of HG. They provide cognitive starting points for thinking about how human geography datapoints might be collated to meet mission-specific context. The NGA continues to pursue multiple other HG efforts such as, “…human geography linguists, which are “…required to maintain fluency in the language(s) of their specific expertise”[xiv], exploring predictive modeling and partnerships with the Department of State through the World-Wide Human Geography Data Working Group to improve disaster responses[xv], and participates in endeavors like the Geography Awareness Week, engaging with students from elementary school through college to incentivize lifelong learning and familiarity with the field of geography.[xvi] The PPF and other HG endeavors within the NGA illuminate the scale of work that is required to adapt HG for a CA-specific context.

Human Geography and Civil Affairs

Why should the CA Regiment adapt HG? The answer is straightforward and simple: CA is already, “…the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) primary force specifically trained and educated to understand, engage, and influence the civil component of the OE, conduct military government operations (MGO), and provide civil considerations expertise”.[xvii] This expansive mission set practically begets an adaptation of HG for what this author believes to be three reasons.

1) The ‘civil component’ of the OE is not always self-evident and as such is an illogical ‘starting point’ for mission analysis. HG provides a much broader analytical starting point, from which the civil component can be potentially discerned.

2) HG as a noun mitigates confusion over which verb (process) to use: Civil Information Management (CIM), Human Network Analysis (HNA), Civil Network Analysis, etc. The primacy of HG as the highest-order noun to describe the OE subsequently relegates the aforementioned verbs as specific tools to use as they relate to aspects of HG. HG provides a taxonomic start point, under which lower order nouns and verbs can be classified.

3) The CA Regiment is ideally situated in terms of existing doctrine, organizational practice, and training, as they relate to potential CA-specific conceptualizations of HG. While there is no precedent for HG within the Regiment, there are related concepts. One such concept is the CA Area Study.

The CA Area Study is:

…a pre-mission study prepared regionally by country or to a specific subnational area within a country as the baseline research document for CA forces. The CA area study presents a description and analysis of the geography, historical setting, and the social, political, military, economic, health, legal, education, governance, infrastructure, and national security systems and institutions of a country using a combination of open- and restricted-source materials.[xviii]

There is no agreed upon guiding framework or concept for the CA Area Study. CA units have carte blanche to determine what an area study is and how it should be done, based on specific mission and geographic context. This is a positive in terms of operational flexibility and incentivizing creative approaches to analytical thought. However, it is a negative in terms of the inevitable variance it creates throughout the entirety of the CA force regarding how the OE is depicted and understood. This variance relates to the aforementioned noun-verb confusion. A Special Operations Forces (SOF) CA team might choose to conduct HNA to understand the OE. An Army Reserve CA team might choose to analyze the OE according to a PMESII-ASCOPE (Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure, Information – Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organization, People, Events) paradigm. These are tools. Tools should not drive how the OE is understood and depicted. The colloquial, “If your only tool is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail” applies. The active (both SOF and General Purpose Force) and reserve components of the CA Regiment will understand the OE as it relates to the tools they have at their disposal. A broader analytical framework is required, and HG has the potential to guide the development of that framework.

The NGA’s Populated Place Framework is again a useful concept to invoke when contemplating a CA Area Study rooted in HG. Could a similar framework be developed for the Regiment? Certainly. The development of this framework would likely require two things at the outset:

1) Establishment of lines of communication between the CA Proponent and the NGA. The previously referenced NSG 1100 essentially requires that any GEOINT effort within the DoD (HG would most certainly be classified as GEOINT) be coordinated with the GEOINT FM: The NGA Director. Policy aside, it would be logical to establish a working relationship with the NGA vice attempting to derive a CA conceptualization of HG ‘out of thin air’.

2) Establishment of CA HG working group(s). The CA Proponent is understaffed and overworked given the task at hand: positioning the Regiment for the future MDO OE. However, the amount of ‘intellectual capital’ throughout the Regiment is a resource. The Civil Affairs Association (CAA) holds annual symposiums and calls for papers. Each year CA professionals write papers throughout various Professional Military Education (PME) programs. It would be fairly simple to create an initial list of ‘topics and issue areas’ as they relate to CA conceptualizations of HG and distribute them throughout any number of the above-named ‘touchpoints’.

The amount of work that would be required to scale HG for a CA-specific application(s) is massive. However, these efforts would not be Sisyphean.


There are many potential benefits to ‘pushing this boulder uphill’. A common vernacular rooted in HG concepts would create synergy between the NGA and the Regiment. This relationship would be symbiotic. The Regiment would benefit from the NGA’s existing conceptualizations of HG and its established preeminence as it relates to the field throughout the IC. The NGA would benefit from the wide distribution of CA teams and associated reporting to continuously refine their datapoints and understanding of the OE. As previously alluded to, a CA adaptation of HG creates the potential to incentivize greater Regimental cohesiveness through mitigation of noun-verb confusions. These and associated benefits will only come about as the result of a deliberate and methodical effort throughout the Regiment in concert with implementing partners, to adapt HG for a CA-specific application(s). Failure to do so however, creates additional confusion as it relates to words, concepts, and their meanings, adding to the veritable wasteland of legacy terms and definitions throughout the Regiment.

The future MDO environment will present challenges to warfighters unlike any that have been known to this point. Doctrinal and organizational change is required throughout the CA Regiment to meet these challenges. The ongoing FMA is continuing to identify challenges and propositions. Human geography as it relates to potential CA application(s) is one such opportunity however, haphazardly pursued presents future challenges. The CA Regiment would benefit greatly from establishing a working relationship with the NGA on HG-related concepts and adapting this expansive and interesting field to its mission-specific context.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense or the US Army.


Headquarters, Department of the Army. Field Manual 3-57 – Civil Affairs Operations, April 2019.

Human Geography: A Concise Introduction. Chichester, West Sussex, [England]: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.,2015.

Knox, Paul. and Marston, Sallie. Human Geography: Places and Regions in Global Context 5th Ed. New York: Prentice Hall. 2010.

Liddick, Jay, Dickerson, Scott, and Chung, Linda. “Calibrating Civil Affairs Forces for Lethality in Large Scale Combat Operations.” Small Wars Journal (March, 2019). Accessed April 9, 2019. forces-lethality-large-scale-combat-operations?fbclid=IwAR2oh1LUs5vc809zEAYZpuXRBnU1kcuYT-TiOAuLHTZfHSFNE7xCjs3SSvQ

“Human Geography Overview Presentation”. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. August 2017.

Medina, Richard M. “From Anthropology to Human Geography: Human Terrain and the Evolution of Operational Sociocultural Understanding.” Intelligence & National Security 31, no. 2 (March 2016): 137–53. doi:10.1080/02684527.2014.945348.

Medina, Richard and George Hepner. “A Note on the State of Geography and Geospatial Intelligence.” National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Accessed May 9, 2019.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. “A Geographic feature by any other name would just be confusing.” Accessed May 9, 2019,


National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. “Geography 2050: Powering our Future Planet.” Accessed May 9, 2019,,-“Powering-our-Future-Planet”.aspx.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. “NGA celebrates geography awareness week.” Accessed May 9, 2019,

National System for Geospatial Intelligence. Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) Functional Management Directive 1100. August 2014.

Nijman, Jan., Peter, Muller., Blij, H.J. Regions, 17th Ed. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2017.

Rubenstein, James. The Cultural Landscape: An Introduction to Human Geography, 11thEd. Boston: Pearson. 2014.

Short, John R. Human Geography: A Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press: 2015.

Training and Doctrine Command. The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028. December 2018.

U.S. Army Special Operations Center of Excellence. Civil Affairs Proponent. Civil Affairs: 2025 and Beyond. November 2018.

U.S. Military Academy. Department Catalog and Guide to Academic Programs: Class of 2020. Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering.

U.S. Army Special Operations Command. USASOC Strategy 2035. April 2016.

U.S. Special Operations Command. USSOCOM Directive 525-38 ‘Civil Military Engagement’. January 2018.

Wainwright, Joel D. “The U.S. Military and Human Geography: Reflections on Our Conjuncture.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 106, no. 3 (May 2016): 513.

End Notes

[i] Training and Doctrine Command. The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028. December 2018. p. 21.

[ii] Jay Liddick, et al. “Calibrating Civil Affairs Forces for Lethality in Large Scale Combat Operations.” Small Wars Journal (March, 2019). Accessed April 9, 2019. forces-lethality-large-scale-combat-operations

[iii] U.S. Army Special Operations Center of Excellence. Civil Affairs Proponent. Civil Affairs: 2025 and Beyond. November 2018. p. ii.

[iv] Jay Liddick, et al. “Calibrating Civil Affairs Forces for Lethality in Large Scale Combat Operations.” Small Wars Journal (March, 2019). Accessed April 9, 2019. forces-lethality-large-scale-combat-operations.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] James Rubenstein. The Cultural Landscape: An Introduction to Human Geography, 11th Ed. Boston: Pearson. 2014. p. xv.

[vii] Nijman et. al., H.J. Regions, 17th Ed. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2017. p. 31.

[viii] Ibid. p. 31.

[ix] Nijman, et. al. Regions, 17th Ed. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2017. p. 33.

[x] Paul Knox and Sallie Marston. Human Geography: Places and Regions in Global Context 5th Ed. New York: Prentice Hall. 2010. p. 21.

[xi] Joel Wainwright, Joel D. “The U.S. Military and Human Geography: Reflections on Our Conjuncture.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 106, no. 3 (May 2016): p. 516.

[xii] National System for Geospatial Intelligence Directive 1100. Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) Functional Management. August 2014.

[xiii] Populated Place Framework. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. 2017.

[xiv] “A Geographic Feature by any other name would just be confusing,” National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, accessed May 9, 2019,

[xv] “Geography 2050, “Powering our Future Planet,” National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, accessed May 9, 2019,,-“Powering-our-Future-Planet”.aspx.

[xvi] “NGA Celebrates Geography Awareness Week,” National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, accessed May 9, 2019,

[xvii] Headquarters, Department of the Army. Field Manual 3-57 – Civil Affairs Operations, April 2019. p. 1-1.

[xviii] Ibid. p 3-12.

Categories: civil affairs

About the Author(s)

Mike Karlson is a Civil Affairs Major and has 15 years in service. These years are comprised of time as an Army Infantryman, Transportation Officer, and Civil Affairs Officer. He has served overseas in Afghanistan, the Republic of the Philippines, The Republic of Korea, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, and the Republic of Cambodia. He holds a BA in Psychology from the Virginia Military Institute, and an MA in Organizational Leadership from Brandman University. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Strategic Security Studies through National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs, Joint Special Operations Master of Arts program.